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Utility Sound: Thoughts About


Jan McL
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Did a search, but found no discussions on the topic of sound thirds.

Seems like every mixer has different things they expect and need.

Interested in how others manage and think about the position. What do you want/expect?

From my perspective, which is largely wanting to be a better, happier department head:

  • I most enjoy working with 3rds who don't want or need to be micromanaged. If I'm micromanaging, something's wrong.
  • Despite what I need or expect, I look for strengths and areas of interest in which to direct their time & attention. If you're happy & fulfilled, I'm happier & more fulfilled.
  • While there are no stupid questions, I find that new team members tend to ask a lot of questions to which they already know the answers, like:
  • Do you want me to jam the slates?
  • Do you want me to put the Comteks out?
  • Do you want me to find AC?

The answers to these questions are always, "Yes." What I ask is that they think before asking any question, and ask themselves if they don't already know the answer. Nine times out of ten, they do. I swear it.

Here are the other things I deeply appreciate having done:

  • Fill out any paperwork that comes in (like start work) as much as you are able
  • Take care of time cards like little old ladies
  • Make sure the main cart is stocked with expendables - don't make me ask
  • If something breaks, bring it to my attention; once troubleshot, mark it with accurate note (NG: short @ connector), and get it fixed
  • Be familiar with the gear and where it is. Got time? Open up the cases and memorize where everything is. Make your own notes in tape on the cases if necessary.
  • Take notes. You should always have pen & paper handy. On a big day, I'm gonna land with a bunch of things on my mind to delegate & make preparations for.
  • Not right away, but you could aspire to set up the cart for the day, including filling out a sound report with date, location, first scene #, and setting up the media for recording, including the creating the day's folder and head slate.
  • Deal with expendables inventory and ordering from the APOC. I don't need or want to know anything beyond knowing we always have what we need.
  • Deal with repairs, including but not limited to getting breakage on the production report, interfacing with APOC/manufacturer re: shipping & expeditious returns
  • Company move logistics are yours to administer, including preparing the truck for load-in, coordinating with teamster, locations, camera department. All of it.
  • Look out for my gear better than I look out for my gear: just bring the darned tent :)
  • Put it back where you found it. That means you have to pay attention when you take something out.
  • If it's deployed or loaned, get it back (lost a boom pole & apple box recently to this kind of attrition)
  • Get all the tape off the carpet before storing it
  • Pay attention
  • The Comtek has pretty good range. I don't care where you are so long as you're in range and have your headphones on.
  • Lately -- after I'm certain they know all there is to know about putting the carts to bed -- I let the utility load the truck at the end of the day.

-- Jan

Edited by Jan McL
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Jan, you've written a concise and comprehensive list of "back end" responsibilities for the Utility Sound Technician... stuff to do when there's spare time... but as a Boom Operator, I see a list of high-priority "front end" responsibilities that need to noted, as well.  Such as... staying close enough to what the boom operator is up to at all times, knowing when to grab items to set up another radio mic or a plant, or seeing enough of the rehearsals and the lighting to be able to jump in with a second fishpole, or watching the extras to know which ones need foot foam, or setting up a crash pad for props that land on the table, or tracking down other noisemakers on the set, or keeping an eye on actors wearing radio mics when they're wrapped for the day or changing wardrobe, or being skilled enough to back up the sound mixer when they have to make a bathroom run... and more.  The sound 3rd has to be ready to do everything all at once, covering their own direct territory as well as backing up the mixer and the boom op.  It's a lot of work and I have huge respect for how hard they work and I'm more than happy to move their chair or grab them a cup of coffee when I can.

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Ah, Messrs Abrams and Clark,

Doh. You're quite right. Missed the front end entirely: things that go 'bump' in the light.

Yours is certainly a boom op perspective, Mr. Abrams, since in my way of working a lot of what you mention gets to the 3rd through the boom op's good eyes & ears. Rarely have had a utility who was on top of those things without prompting, with the exception of location noise hunting. That's a biggie.

Maybe it's my particular style, which is a 'zone defense': boom = set; me = cart; and utility = everywhere else. I don't particularly want the utility on set, especially if the boom's looking for things like hard shoes, lights, noisy ballasts, bulbs, etc., while they watch the lighting setup. On the other hand, if the boom op wants to delegate that, why, guess I'm all for it. Problem is, that's a 2nd sound department body clogging up the on-set works. My preference is not to do that.

Insofar as plant mics are concerned, that information comes to the third based on conversations between me and the boom, after we've come up with the plan (and then the revised plan) on how to mic the scene. That's usually clear by the time the lens(es) are set.

Every mixer's different, but because my fingers are on the faders, I like to place my own wireless lavs and plant mics so I know precisely what I can expect to hear at the end of that fader. I've tried to let others do that, but find I'm not 'connected' to the sound when I do. Similarly, unless we've got a peck of actors wired, I like to remove them.

An amazing actor once taught me something invaluable about sound generally, and wireless micing particularly: it's intimate. That you get into their clothes, have their voices directly piped into your head and available for wider distribution are huge trust things. I work hard to earn that trust, and guard it jealously.

Curious why and what others do differently relative to mic placement, and what advantages are gained.

Thanks for adding to the discussion, fellas.

-- Jan

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Curious why and what others do differently relative to mic placement, and what advantages are gained.

Thanks for adding to the discussion, fellas.

-- Jan

This is all good stuff (and should be required reading for all up and coming Utility Sound people). I agree with everything Jan describes for the "back end" responsibilities but also agree totally with Laurence's Boom Operator perspective. My way of working (which has evolved over 33 years of working with Don Coufal) is to let Don run the set. I am almost always present for rehearsals with 1st team since I do not want to ask other people stupid questions about the scene. Since the Utility person is often required to be the 2nd boom operator, I like them to see at least one rehearsal as well. After that, the Utility person works with Don, doing whatever is needed for the shot. By "needed for the shot" I mean everything, all inclusive, like sound abatement (foot foam, carpets, pads, etc.), securing the location (air conditioners, generator placement, cable runs, etc.), and of course booming if needed.

As for placement of plant mics and lavs on the actors, this is totally the responsibility of the First Boom Op, assisted by the Utility person. They will be able to do a far better job than I in this regard.

-  Jeff Wexler

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I nearly cried--it would be so great to have people working for me who would do all that!  In my conversations w/ mixers of long-running episodics, your list is EXACTLY how they work, what the good teams evolve into.  I think my favorite item is the "mindshare" issue--not asking if they should do things that we both KNOW they need to do.  (This cuts two ways though--as a mixer you need to avoid doing things, like slate jams etc, that the 3rd should do, and you need to have faith that they did them.)

How many of you folks have 3rds that are as much a part of your world as your regular boomists are?  Lately we've had a lot of trouble keeping assistants around at all--for the gig yesterday every one that anyone knew was working on something else, usually not as a 3rd.

Philip Perkins

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How many of you folks have 3rds that are as much a part of your world as your regular boomists are?  Lately we've had a lot of trouble keeping assistants around at all--for the gig yesterday every one that anyone knew was working on something else, usually not as a 3rd.

Philip Perkins

For the last couple of years it has been a lot more difficult to keep a team together. For many, many years in the past, I was fortunate to have a team together and we did a lot of movies with the same people. Crew Chamberlain worked with us for quite some time, Jim Stuebe was with us for many movies, Gary Holland, Robert Maxfield also worked with me and Don on lots of movies. Having a finely tuned team with the sound department is a wonderful thing.

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I would still be w you Jeff if it weren't for Don. He is to hard to work with;-) Just a joke. Don n Jeff are outstanding men n great team mates. They even know a little bit about sound recording.

I enjoy the team aspect of sound crews. Marydixie has been my boom op for 11 years. We seldom get a 3rd in commercials, but when we do, they definitely are expected to think and do on their feet. Fill the gaps. Work w the boom as an extension of his/her needs. Even help the video monkeys if needed. Wish I had a 3rd on the team full time.

CrewC

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Wow, glad I'm not my own third!  That's a lot of work!  But I agree with most of Jan's list except I set up and wrap my own cart.  It's the least I can do.  My thirds have enough to deal with.  On my last shoot in New Mexico the third (the young and awesome Jason Collins) was routinely getting a half hour pre call so he could off load the cart and find me a nice spot, but usually here in NY we all have the same call time.  As for wires, usually it's either my third or myself.  Same goes for plants.

The best was in Morocco.  My local utility guy, Nourdine Zaoui, brought in a little pressure espresso maker and would shoot up his crew everyday after lunch.  Haven't had java like that since!

Billy Sarokin

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@Jan, thanks for posting this.  This has really shown me that the decisions I've been making managing myself and my boom op/utility were right on track.  Unfortunately, I have not received the formal "on-set" production training from a more distinguished mixer, (other than what I've learned from careful observation, this web site, my days working post, and some common sense), so I'm happy to find that certain duties I've delegated for others to do are very similar :).

As Billy said though, there are a few of those duties I feel guilty not doing myself hehe.  Keeping my team happy (however big it may be), is important to me now that I've experienced the power of having a boom op or utility that knows how to take care of my gear and takes pride in their work to learn and better themselves.  Even though the head of the dept. is the mixer (as i've heard many of times), it's seems to me that the boom op is the make-or-break guy for the team, so I try my best to keep things distributed evenly with duties.

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Oh, my empire for a finely-tuned sound team every working day! Have had that experience, and work hard to build and keep an excellent long-term team as we speak.

Noodling this thread is part of that process I think.

Listing what my excellent utility people do makes me feel grateful & humbled. That said, I do not ask for anything I have not myself done, for the first above post also incorporates those things I do when I have thirded long-term jobs. Young mixers can make top-notch utility people because they know exactly what can make the job easier, and can -- as Laurence suggests -- fill in mixing when the pinch comes, and the pinch always comes.

For my part, I take my team out to a fine meal every now & again, spring for coffee, and have the appropriate beverage on hand on that grotesquely hot or cold day. I make an effort to make sure my team is formally introduced to producers and director(s), with the appropriate, respectful gravitas (learned from one of my excellent mentors). Wrap gifts.

One last thing: I feel it's a big part of my responsibility to have the gear set up so as to make our jobs easier. The current rebuild incorporates aluminum drawers and cable reduction, for example. Less weight. The setup is designed for ease of use and efficiency, out of respect for my team, the inherent difficulties of making motion pictures, and the Big Picture.

-- Jan

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Dear Jan - all of the above.

Working without a 3rd is a total pain.

Should we waste 3 minutes of any shoot for the mixer or boom op to stop rehearsals or takes

to go and change a battery in a Comtek or check a time-code slate - NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I have walked on glass to get a 3rd with me on some shoots.

On a Disney shoot I did with a great boom operator (LOR and KK for Sir Peter) our 3rd saved

the day by 2nd booming.

Why do PM's not want to understand what is needed?????

mike

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Mike, it is endemic i guess. i have had to tell producers to hire a chief AC or focus puller for 50 bucks a day, since they wanted to pay my boom op that much... just plain ignorance, and coupled with this inherent senseless urge to cut everything down...

-vin

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Having actors wired and ready for next setup.

Tracking down the noise makers(A/C, Ballasts, fridges, fans, etc) for each setup and location, before noisy cameras and crew get there.

Shoe control with background and main actors.

Get video to the cart

Worked my first sound gig on a Union project(Big Momma House 3) with Whit Norris and all the above was done by utility and the boom op helped out. I came on as a Sound Assistant but I was on it. While the utility guy was running cables I was getting the wireless mics prepped and checking all the 100's of extras shoes. We worked well together as a team and everything came out great. I had fun. BUT if you can't deal with working in pressured environments I suggest you go back to your day job.

Nicole

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What NOT to do:

Talent is wired one day,  and no audio is reaching the mixing board from one of the radios.  It is a coban wrapped rig,  and has to be replaced and re-wrapped.  Then it comes out that said unit had been dropped the day before by the utility.  I had gone to my supplier before call to get a comtek repaired (while I waited), and could have dropped off the radio at the same time and grabbed a loaner.  Now,  we are down a radio from the top of the day,  at a location that is awkward to get to.  Something happens, SPEAK UP!  The utility saw lights come on when he plugged the lav into the radio and assumed all was ok.  It turned out that the audio output board had dislodged a bit with the fall.  RF was intact was audio was affected.  The unit could have been repaired when I was at the supplier,  but I now had to make a separate trip to drop it off.  This is what loses a utility points, big time.  We have have all dropped things.  You (the mixer) need to know and  follow up.

ao

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Dear Jan - all of the above.

Working without a 3rd is a total pain.

.......

Why do PM's not want to understand what is needed?????

mike

Absolutely agree Mike. The problem here in New Zealand is that producers & PM's don't see 3rds as anything else but a trainee boom operator. When you do get a the trainee, they then expect that the trainee will be a competent boom op at say the end of a 6 month episodic TV drama series. That way, this fresh boom operator can go and work for some other mysterious production who might be wanting a "newly trained" boom op (not). This also means you get a new trainee every season which is cheap for the production.

If of course you are on a production which is fundamentally 1 boom, the trainee gets little experience at booming. All this is lost on the production office.

Genuine 3rd's don't last long here. They can't get reliable work.

Having said that, the two trainees / 3rd's that I have worked with lately have been terrific and I'm about to start a 2nd  season of a TV drama series with the same boom & 3rd as last year, including the great boom op Mike Westgate mentioned. Yay..

David M

Auckland

NZ

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Excellent! Thanks for chiming in everyone. Think l can with confidence share this discussion with new/aspiring 3rds.

Fact is, it took me a fairly long time and some planning to build up to being able to do all that stuff listed without running myself into the ground. Really did think hard about how I might more efficiently off-load & set up the carts, distribute Comteks, jam slates, run video cable, and search for noise. Having gotten those things down to a science, I was free to make logistical improvements. Having made improvements, my biggest problem became overcoming boredom, and staying focused enough to 'be there' when the time came.

I was only able to 'be there' because there was a mic open on set with the boom op, and he was focused and communicated, as did the mixer. They trusted that I always had my ears on. Thank goodness crafty was always in range.

Again, finesse only comes with time, trial & error.

Speaking of error, I was extremely lucky to have a mentor who forgave errors easily and did not hold them over my head foreverafter. Have worked for a couple who held on to mistakes, and it made me wilt as a person. Horrible. At least for me.

It is certainly difficult to keep a team together for more than a project or two, especially with the large breaks in regular work we've had due to strike and tax incentive passage delays (as happens in NY/NJ for 2010 so far). Also due to productions hiring a distant mixer, but requiring local teams.

Just turned down a Tier job that wouldn't provide a 3rd, but that clearly needed one on board for most days. Lots of people talking, lots of playback, lots of locations & company moves. That, and the kit rental was abominable. Perhaps if everyone would do that, the UPM's would get the idea. Somebody took that job. It's gonna be a rats' nest.

-- Jan

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This is what loses a utility points, big time.  We have have all dropped things.  You (the mixer) need to know and  follow up.

Posts like this make me wonder why the utility didn't feel comfortable coming to the mixer with the problem.  It's the leader's responsibility to cultivate a good relationship with his team, not the other way around.  If the utility or the boom op don't trust the mixer then something is up with the mixer, not the team.

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Posts like this make me wonder why the utility didn't feel comfortable coming to the mixer with the problem.  It's the leader's responsibility to cultivate a good relationship with his team, not the other way around.  If the utility or the boom op don't trust the mixer then something is up with the mixer, not the team.

Excellent point, Jeff. There are plenty of people out there to whom one never wants to bring bad news, and it's those folks who suffer from lack of good information.

I know because I used to be one of those people-who-freak. Very early on in the indie world, I didn't know that production would replace things when broken in the course of duty. I was stupidly edgy about broken/lost stuff, since I thought the cost of repair/replacement would come out of my very-thin pocket. Since learning otherwise? I don't care much if at all. Stuff happens. Good UPM's know this and don't -- unless it's happening a lot -- seem to hold it against us. As do good (experienced) mixers. The longer I do this thing, the more calm I get. About everything.

My guess is that newbies who come out of the indie world may not know this either, and act accordingly, out of fear & loathing. That, and/or they simply forget. There were days in my youth when I was completely and utterly overwhelmed, and on those kinds of days, things drip into the cracks. So what? Live and learn.

An atmosphere of solidarity and trust takes a while to engender. Never correcting a member of the team in front of anybody outside the team goes a long way toward building that atmosphere. Not freaking out is a biggie. Passing along compliments helps too.

-- Jan

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  • 2 months later...

Jan, as someone who gave me a chance and who made me learn by doing, I'd say you are spot on. Having regularly worked with you and my Philly guys since, 3rd and boom, seems every mixer expects something a bit different based on preference though the priorities are the same...all about boundaries and personality and how they run their ship... It is the 3rds job to put out fires, expendables, inventory, keep an ear out for rug, foot foam, prop silencer needs,make truck runs and take care of the folks that can't leave their post. We play a big role and have to earn trust from the team and talent when we are responsible for the wires and the relationships that are built on both sides. All about watching our own butts and being diplomatic...and dont screw up the time cards...

Working in NYC more now...we should get lunch!

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